Super resistant bacteria and viruses are considered by the health authorities as a serious threat to public health, along with pandemic influenza, terrorist attacks and flooding. Up to seventy per cent of bacteria existing in the world today are resistant to antibiotics. A British government report claims that up to 80 thousand people could die as a result.
Sir Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928 and since then millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics. But today, in Europe alone, some 25,000 people die every year from infections that are untreatable because the bacteria infecting them are super-resistant to antibiotics. The same is happening with viruses, which are not treated with antibiotics, but rather with anti-viral drugs.
The latest report is drawn up by the British Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which claims that in 2012, 2.4 tonnes of fluroquinolone antibiotics were administered to animals, up from 2.1 tonnes in 2011. There were also increases in the sales of third and fourth generation cephalosporins and macrolides. In the UK, some seventy million tonnes of animal manure high in antibiotics is spread onto the agricultural land every year and these can reach the food chain again through crops grown on or near this land.
Antibiotics are used on fishing vessels so that sea animals such as barnacles keep away and do not fix themselves onto the hull, antibiotics are sprayed onto fruit trees.
So, the antibiotics reach us through the food chain - not only for those who eat meat. But there are multiple other causes for the latest alarm. One is over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors, or self-medication by patients with access to antibiotics, who take them, for instance, when they have flu, caused by the Influenza virus. Antibiotics are useless against viral infections, for which anti-viral agents are needed and in many countries, antibiotics can be easily obtained over the Internet.
Antibiotics are administered to fish and seafood farms as well as farm animals; vets can earn commissions on antibiotics prescribed for household pets. Worse, antibiotics are washed into the environment by treated wastewater from water treatment plants, to such an extent that in some areas of the UK, and elsewhere, traces of antibiotics have been found in drinking water.
So widespread is the problem in the United Kingdom that in numerous species of wildlife, such as foxes, moths, seagulls, sharks and crows, multi-resistant bacteria have been found.
However, this problem is not restricted to the United Kingdom. Travellers pick up bacteria when they go abroad - up to a quarter return with some form of multi-resistant bacteria in their gut according to research undertaken in Sweden.
The problem is that bacteria multiply - and so do multi-resistant bacteria, so when an infection is passed on, whether or not the victim is a patient who has used and abused antibiotics over several years, if she or he is infected with the multi-resistant bacteria, then drugs will be useless.
Time for a common strategy, before it is too late.
*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications, TV stations and media groups printed, aired and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications. He has spent the last two decades in humanitarian projects, connecting communities, working to document and catalog disappearing languages, cultures, traditions, working to network with the LGBT communities helping to set up shelters for abused or frightened victims and as Media Partner with UN Women, working to foster the UN Women project to fight against gender violence and to strive for an end to sexism, racism and homophobia. He is also a Media Partner of Humane Society International, fighting for animal rights.